Fantasy football drafts: How do the experts do it?
There aren’t many times where you get to be a bug on the wall, listening in on some of the greatest minds of the fantasy industry, getting to see the way they put together their draft strategy together, step by step. But that’s precisely what I did at the Sirius XM Studios of New York City, taking part in the FLEX Cup draft with 11 other industry professionals, including another one of our own, Pat Thorman.
From the moment that ESPN’s Mike Clay walked in with the championship belt above his head, there was one goal in mind – to take it from him. This is a draft where everyone knows what they are doing, and there is only one way to win: take chances. I did just that.
Below, I will recap some of the decisions I made, as well as some of the more questionable ones from other owners. If you play in a competitive league, this should help you understand where you’ll need to reach in order to secure your player. Keep in mind that this was a 12-team league, with 0.5 PPR settings, where we start 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 2 W/R/T, 1 D/ST.
The first round is full of players we all know can produce at the NFL level, but if there was one pick that surprised me, it was Bob Lung’s pick of Jamaal Charles at No. 11. He’s coming up on 30 years old, had his second ACL tear, and is now dealing with competition in Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. While it wasn’t a bad pick, there were safer options still on the board. My rule for the first round is to take as little of risk as possible. My pick: A.J. Green
The second round was more of the same, with players going where they should have. If there was one player who fell further than he was supposed to, it was Jordy Nelson, who lasted until Adam Aizer picked him at 2.09. Similar to Charles, Nelson is coming off a torn ACL and is rising in age (just turned 31). The reason this pick works is because we know Nelson has No. 1 upside, and Aizer paired him with a safe option, stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. My pick: Devonta Freeman
As you get further into the draft, picks can deviate further and further from ADP, allowing room for criticism. To be fair, you have to be bold in these drafts in order to win, simply because you can’t let ADP determine who you draft. You need to stand by your players. Round 3 is when you should start looking for upside, taking a player who has the potential to be a first round pick next year. Tim Heaney took Julian Edelman at 3.10, and while he is a solid player, that is likely Edelman’s production ceiling. He was on the best pace of his career before going down, and that would have totaled roughly 1,230 yards and 12 touchdowns (WR8 production). Those are great numbers, but with the additions of Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan, as well as the loss of Brady for four games, his touchdown total is well out of reach. My pick: Carlos Hyde
After going with back-to-back workhorse running backs in the second and third rounds, I knew I had some ground to cover at wide receiver. And as I stated in Round 3, this is the point where you start to plant your flag on guys who have a legitimate shot at being a first-rounder next year. By the time it had gotten to me at 4.07, there were already 24 wide receivers who had been drafted, leaving me with a decision between Michael Floyd and Donte Moncrief. Unless there is an injury in Arizona, there is no way Floyd can reach that first-round level, but Moncrief on the other hand is the guy I knew I wanted. With an injured Andrew Luck in 2015, the two combined for 51 targets, 32 receptions, 351 yards and five touchdowns through seven games. He was the No. 22 in fantasy points through those games, and it only helps that Coby Fleener left via free agency. The defense is extremely bad, so there will be a lot of games with 40-plus pass attempts in his future. His situation reminds me a lot of Allen Robinson last year. My pick: Donte Moncrief
Continuing with the trend in this draft, it was WR-heavy, as 32 wide receivers were gone by the end of this round. The most surprising one, however, came from Jarrett Behar, who selected Allen Hurns at 5.09 as the 31st wide receiver off the board. While most would contend that it was a value, Hurns did a lot of his damage over the season’s first eight games, and trended downward as the year went on. After totaling 635 yards and six scores through the first half of the season, he totaled just 395 yards and four touchdowns the rest of the way. That was while the Jaguars chucked the ball 606 times, with a defense that allowed 28.0 points per game, second-most in the NFL. They made it a point to build their defense via the draft and free agency, as well as add Chris Ivory to build a more run-heavy approach. Unless you remove major fantasy value from Allen Robinson, it’s hard to project Hurns finishing inside the top 30 wide receivers. My pick: Frank Gore
At this point, it’s a thought to take one of the elite quarterbacks, considering the top 32 wide receivers are gone, as well as the top 25 running backs. That is precisely what Chris Harris decided to do with the 6.05 pick, was snatch up Russell Wilson, as both Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers went off the board in the fourth and fifth rounds. I asked Harris about this pick, and he said “Taking Russell Wilson in the sixth still feels like good value, though seeing everyone wait so long on QB had me second-guessing a little. But I don’t regret reaching for him a little.” As for my pick, I’d already snagged three workhorse running backs (going with the value that was presented to me), so I really needed to lock up a wide receiver. If you’ve read my articles this year, you already know that Torrey Smith is in my top 30 wide receivers, so I snagged him as the 35th wide receiver off the board. My pick: Torrey Smith
Coming into the seventh round, three tight ends had come off the board: Rob Gronkowski (2.01), Jordan Reed (4.11), and Greg Olsen (6.06). This is where the dagger went in, as I knew Pat Thorman was high on Torrey Smith, and I needed a wide receiver. He was also high on Coby Fleener, but I had noted that he was the one who took Reed at the 4.11 pick, which is why I took Smith over Fleener at 6.07. Thorman didn’t care that he already had Reed – he took Fleener with the 7.02 pick, locking up one of his flex spots with the player I was hoping for. That is why it’s important to know who is drafting around you, who they’re high on, and what positions they need. In this case, I think I did everything right, and Thorman just went outside of the norm. Josh Gordon also went in the seventh round, leaving Chris Harris a little uneasy about his pick, in retrospect. “I probably wouldn’t reach for Josh Gordon in the seventh again. I was thinking upside, but probably could’ve kept thinking for a few more rounds and still gotten him.” My pick: Corey Coleman
The draft board started getting thin at wide receiver at this point, so you started seeing the upside picks, like Sammie Coates by Jake Ciely at 8.08. Coates is a player who I’m staying away from in drafts, as I think Darrius Heyward-Bey gets the veteran nod, and that you’ll be able to snag Coates off waiver wires after a few weeks. He has upside, but he needs to get onto the field. There was some regret in this round as well, as Thorman said this of his pick at 8.11: “If I had to take a pick back, it’d be Jay Ajayi in the late-eighth. I do like him in general and the value wasn’t terrible, but there were attractive receivers available. It would’ve freed me up to take a ‘zero-RB’ style back instead of Mohamed Sanu a few rounds later.”
While I may be a little biased, I’d say that I got the steal of the eighth round with Drew Brees at 8.07. He hasn’t thrown for fewer than 32 touchdowns in any of the last eight years, and hasn’t fallen below 4,800 yards passing in any of the last five years. The Saints revamped his weapons, so it should be no shock to see him finish as a top-three fantasy option, like he has done six times before. He actually hasn’t finished outside of the top-six quarterbacks since 2005. My pick: Drew Brees
The pick of the ninth round that needs to be addressed was the one of Chris Harris, who snagged DeAngelo Williams with the 9.08 pick, as the 38th running back off the board. There were multiple times where Jake Ciely and I, who were sitting side-by-side, discussed the fact that he was still there. Just two picks before Bob Lung could lock up his Le’Veon Bell handcuff, Harris snatched him. The draft took place prior to Bell’s suspension being reduced by a game, so at the time, it seemed to us that Harris got four borderline RB1 performances for a ninth-round pick. If I hadn’t been so deep at running back already, I would have snagged Williams myself. Adam Aizer also had a solid pick this round, taking Stefon Diggs as the 49th wide receiver off the board. With the news coming out that Laquan Treadwell isn’t going to run with the starters to begin the season, Diggs can continue building rapport with Teddy Bridgewater in their second season together. My pick: Dwayne Allen
The best pick of this round was a no-brainer for me, as Mike Clay snagged Devin Funchess off the board as the 54th wide receiver. All reports out of camp are stating that Funchess has grown this offseason, his work ethic is extremely impressive, and it showed in the preseason opener. He caught a nice touchdown pass that was all hands, not a body catch like most second-string wide receivers do. With reports that Kelvin Benjamin is struggling with his conditioning, the door is opening for the talented sophomore receiver who has the true makings of a No. 1 wide receiver. While I don’t necessarily agree with him, Thorman told me this after the draft. “I guess DeAndre Washington in the 10th was a bit of a reach based on ADP, but with a group as sharp as this we need to be aggressive. I’ve been really bullish on the Oakland backfield situation all offseason, and Latavius Murray in particular — but knowing how inefficient he was last season, I wanted to do my best to ensure I lock up the Raiders running back. A fifth for Murray and 10th for Washington seemed like a fair enough price to do it.” My pick: Jerick McKinnon (this pick upset a lot of others, who wanted to snag him)
This was the round I wish I could take back. In between all of the picks, each of us was pulled into the recording studio to talk about our picks at random times. Well, my time was in between my McKinnon pick (that I loved), and my 11th-round pick. After talking on the radio for a quick five minutes, the draft board changed, and there were 11 picks made by the time I got back. I felt rushed to make a pick, and knew that I wanted to snag a tight end to back up my oft-injured Dwayne Allen pick, and Jimmy Graham was there on my cheat sheet, along with a bunch of others in that tier. After picking, I realized that Eric Ebron was still on my cheat sheet, not drafted. I had moved him there after the reports surfaced about his Achilles, but they turned out to be nothing, and I never moved him back up. He was taken three picks after I took Graham. While I do know that Graham offers league-winning upside, he’s also coming back from one of the worst injuries in all of football. It’s a risk that I wish I could take back. My pick: Jimmy Graham
This draft took place Aug. 13, before the trade between the Titans and Eagles happened, where Dorial Green-Beckham was shipped out of Tennessee. While most are making nothing of it, this gives those drafting Rishard Matthews an extra level of comfort. Jarrett Behar took him as the 61st wide receiver off the board, a steal that could turn out to be a difference-maker. It shouldn’t shock anyone if Matthews finishes as a top-30 wide receiver in 2016. After that, there were the trio of Ravens wide receivers taken in rapid succession by Tristan Cockcroft (Breshad Perriman), myself (Mike Wallace) and Jake Ciely (Steve Smith). As you can see, even the industry guys are torn on Ravens wide receivers. My pick: Mike Wallace
There will be plenty of names to look at in this range when the season is over, but I’ll give some of my favorites over the final four rounds of the draft.
Blake Bortles (13.03) – Not even a huge fan, but that’s value in the 13th round.
Tyrod Taylor (13.06) – Even better value than Bortles.
Javorius Allen (13.08) – Small price to pay for someone who could be the lead running back in Baltimore.
Spencer Ware (13.12) – One of my favorite late-round picks.
Terrance Williams (14.09) – Taken as the 67th wide receiver off the board. Hasn’t finished outside the top-42 wide receviers in each of the last two years.
Matt Ryan (15.08) – As the 20th quarterback taken, I would have loved to have paired him with someone like Tyrod Taylor.
Anquan Boldin (16.10) – In a league that starts so many positions, Boldin will be able to fill a flex spot, and do it well.
My picks: Tyrod Taylor, Arizona Cardinals D/ST, Shane Vereen, Paul Perkins